Featured Linguists

Featured Linguist: Joakim Nivre

For this week’s featured linguist, we bring you a great piece from Professor Joakim Nivre!

Professor Joakim Nivre

I am delighted to support the fund drive for the LINGUIST List in the year of its 30th anniversary. Like so many of my colleagues I have relied on the services of the LINGUIST List throughout the years, and this gives me a wonderful opportunity to share some glimpses from my career as a computational linguist as well as some reflections on the development of the field during these three decades.

When the LINGUIST List was started in 1990, I was a PhD student in general linguistics at the University of Gothenburg, trying to complete a thesis on situation semantics (a framework of formal semantics that has since faded into oblivion) and mostly ignorant of the computational side of linguistics that later became the focus of my career. The 1990s was the decade when computational linguistics was transformed by the so-called statistical revolution, which meant a methodological shift from carefully hand-crafted rule-based systems that delivered a deep linguistic analysis but were often lacking in coverage and robustness to statistical models trained on corpus data going for breadth instead of depth.

The statistical turn in computational linguistics is also what got me into the field, more or less by accident. After graduating in 1992, I was hired as a lecturer in the linguistics department in Gothenburg, where around 1995 there was a pressing need for a course on statistical methods in computational linguistics but there was no one who was qualified to teach it. Young and foolish, and eager to learn something new, I decided to accept the challenge and started developing a course, using as my main sources Eugene Charniak’s beautiful little book Statistical Language Learning and a compendium on statistics for linguists by Brigitte Krenn and Christer Samuelsson with the words “Don’t Panic!” in big boldface letters on the cover. As it turned out, the University of Gothenburg was not the only institution that needed someone to teach statistical methods in computational linguistics at the time, and I ended up almost making a career as an itinerant lecturer in statistical NLP in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

Eventually, I also managed to apply my newly acquired expertise to research, notably in a series of papers on statistical part-of-speech tagging. Fascinated by the power of inductive inference that allowed us to build practical systems for linguistic analysis from what was essentially just frequency counts from corpora, I found that statistical NLP was more fun than formal semantics and slowly but surely started converting from theoretical to computational linguistics.

The following decade meant great changes for me both personally and professionally. After switching gears and getting serious about computational linguistics, I realized I needed to strengthen my computational competence and decided to do a second PhD in computer science. In the process, I also moved from the University of Gothenburg to Växjö University, a young small university in the south of Sweden, with more limited resources for research but a lot of enthusiasm and pioneer spirit to make up for it. Looking for a topic for my second PhD thesis, I stumbled on dependency parsing, which at the time was a niche area with very little impact in mainstream computational linguistics. As an illustration of this, when giving my first conference presentation on dependency parsing in 2003, I had to devote almost half the talk to explaining what dependency parsing was in the first place and motivating why such a thing could be worth studying at all.

By another case of fortunate timing, however, I happened to be one of the first researchers to approach dependency parsing using the new kind of statistical methods, and together with colleagues like Yuji Matsumoto, Ryan McDonald, Sabine Buchholz and Kenji Sagae, building on foundational work by Jason Eisner and Mike Collins, among others, I was fortunate to become one of the leaders in a new and fruitful line of research that has turned dependency parsing into the dominant approach to syntactic analysis in NLP, especially for languages other than English. A milestone year in this development was 2006, when Sabine Buchholz led the organization of the first CoNLL shared task on multilingual dependency parsing and Sandra Kübler and I gave the first dependency parsing tutorial at the joint ACL-COLING conference in Sydney.

The rapidly increasing popularity of dependency parsing was in my view due to three main factors. First, dependency representations provide a more direct representation of predicate-argument structure than other syntactic representations, which makes them practically useful when building natural language understanding applications. Second, thanks to their constrained nature, these representations can be processed very efficiently, which facilitates large-scale deployment. And finally, thanks to efforts like the CoNLL shared tasks, multilingual data sets were made available, which together with off-the-shelf systems like MSTParser (by Ryan McDonald) and MaltParser (by my own group) facilitated parser development for many languages. Towards the end of the decade we also saw dependency parsing being integrated on a large scale in real applications like information extraction and machine translation.

The third decade of my co-existence with the LINGUIST List started with the biggest computational linguistics event in Sweden so far, the ACL conference in Uppsala in 2010. Together with my colleagues at Uppsala University, where I had moved to take up a professorship in computational linguistics, I was very happy to receive computational linguists from all corners of the world during a very hot week in July. The conference was considered huge at the time, with almost 1000 participants, but would be considered small by today’s standards (with over 3000 participants in Florence last year), so I am really glad that we took the opportunity while it was still possible to fit ACL into a small university town like Uppsala.

My own research during the last decade has to a large extent been concerned with trying to understand how we can build models that are better equipped to deal with the structural variation found in the world’s languages. In the case of parsing, for example, it is easy to see that models developed for English, a language characterized by relatively rigid word order constraints and limited morphological inflection, often do not work as well when applied to languages that exhibit different typological properties. However, it is much harder to see what needs to be done to rectify the situation. A major obstacle to progress in this area has been the lack of cross-linguistically consistent morphosyntactic annotation of corpora, making it very hard to clearly distinguish differences in language structure from more or less accidental differences in annotation standards. This is why I and many of my colleagues have devoted considerable time and effort to the initiative known as Universal Dependencies (UD), whose goal is simply to create cross-linguistically consistent morphosyntactic annotation for as many languages as possible.

Given that UD is an open community effort without dedicated funding, it has been remarkably successful and has grown in only six years from ten treebanks and a dozen researchers to 163 treebanks for 92 languages with contributions from 370 researchers around the world. I am truly amazed and grateful for the wonderful response from the community, and UD resources are now used not only for NLP research but increasingly also in other areas of linguistics, notably for empirical studies of word order typology. All members of the UD community deserve recognition for their efforts, but I especially want to thank Marie de Marneffe, Chris Manning and Ryan McDonald, for being instrumental in getting the project off the ground, and Filip Ginter, Sampo Pyysalo and (above all) Dan Zeman, for doing all the heavy lifting as our documentation and release team.

But is there really a need for something like UD in computational linguistics today? You may think that, if I was fortunate to experience a few cases of good timing in my previous career, the decision to start the UD initiative in 2014 may with hindsight look like a case of extremely bad timing. The field of computational linguistics, and especially the more practical NLP side of it, has in recent years undergone a second major transformation known as the deep learning revolution. This has meant a switch from discrete symbolic representations to dense continuous representations, representations that are learnt by deep neural networks that are trained holistically for end-to-end tasks, where the role of traditional linguistic representations has been reduced to a minimum. In fact, it is very much an open question whether traditional linguistic processing tasks like part-of-speech tagging and dependency parsing have any role to play in the NLP systems of the future.

Looking back at the three decades of the LINGUIST List, there is no question that computational linguistics has gradually diverged from other branches of linguistics both theoretically and methodologically. The statistical revolution of the 1990s meant a shift from knowledge-driven to data-driven methods, but theoretical models from linguistics such as formal grammars were still often used as the backbone of the systems. The shift from generative to discriminative statistical models during the next decade further emphasized the role of features learned from data and so-called grammarless parsers became the norm, especially for dependency parsing, reducing the role of traditional linguistics to corpus annotation and (sometimes) clever feature engineering. During the last decade, the advent of deep learning has to a large extent eliminated the need for feature engineering, in favor of representation learning, and the emphasis on end-to-end learning has further reduced the role of linguistic annotation.

Should we therefore conclude that there is no linguistics left in computational linguistics? I think not. Paradoxically, as the importance of explicit linguistic notions in NLP has decreased, the desire to know whether NLP systems nevertheless learn linguistic notions seems to have increased. There is a whole new subfield of computational linguistics often referred to as interpretability studies, which is about understanding the inner workings of the complex deep neural networks now used for language processing. And a substantial part of this field is concerned with figuring out whether, say, a deep neural language model like ELMo or BERT (to mention just two of the most popular models on the market) implicitly learn linguistic notions like part-of-speech categories, word senses or even syntactic dependency structure. And resources like UD have turned out to be of key importance when trying to probe the black-box models in search for linguistic structure. This opens up exciting new possibilities for research, which can ultimately be expected to influence also other branches of linguistics. Exactly where this research will take us is impossible to say today, but I for one am eagerly looking forward to following the development over the coming decades in the company of the LINGUIST List. If you are too, please consider contributing to the fund drive.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/
All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Lauren Gawne

Dear Linguist List Readers,

This week, we are pleased to present Professor Lauren Gawne as part of our Featured Linguists series!

Professor Lauren Gawne

Early next year my blog Superlinguo will turn 10, which means I’ve been blogging about linguistics for almost a third of LINGUIST List’s life. I’ve been a subscriber to LINGUIST List a little longer than that, having signed up at the start of graduate school in 2009, something I now encourage my own grad students to do. One of the delightful things about blogging for almost as long as I’ve been a full-time linguist is that the blog now acts as an external memory device; I wrote a detailed post about how I got into linguistics back in 2012. I came to linguistics by luck, but I have stayed because language is endlessly interesting, and because linguists are an enthusiastic bunch.

I’ve been passionate about sharing linguistics with wider audiences since my graduate days because I want more people to have the opportunity to approach language like linguists, without having to accidentally end up in an intro course because their friend suggested it. When I started Lingthusiasm, a podcast that is enthusiastic about linguistics, with Gretchen McCulloch in 2016, we wanted to capture the joyful nerdiness you find in conference corridor chats whenever a group of linguists assemble, in a format that’s fun and engaging no matter how much you already know about linguistics. Gretchen and I also want to see more linguistics communication in the world, which is why we launched the LingComm grants in 2020, and share curated linguistics communication projects that are useful for teaching with through the Mutual Intelligibility newsletter.

My research interests all stem from an expansive approach to linguistics – I do language documentation and description work with Tibetic language communities in Nepal, but I’m also interested in co-speech gesture, and I’ve written about language on the internet, including a paper on the linguistics of LOLcats with Jill Vaughan and how emoji act as digital gestures with Gretchen McCulloch. I’m not just interested in how language works, but also how linguists work – which is why I’ve helped run Linguistics in the Pub in Melbourne on-and-off over the last decade, and why I’ve enjoyed working with the Linguistics Data Interest Group of the Research Data Alliance to publish the Austin Principles of Data Citation in Linguistics and the Tromsø Recommendations for Citation of Research Data in Linguistics.

If there is one thing I hope for the future of linguistics as a field, it would be that we do a better job of keeping those who studied linguistics feeling connected to the discipline, and welcoming people who might never have thought linguistics was for them. For the last five years I’ve been running monthly interviews with people who have studied linguistics and gone on to careers in a wide range of fields. Regardless of whether their work relates to linguistics topic-wise, each person mentions the analytical and communication skills they gained through studying linguistics. We train far more linguists than there will ever be academic linguistics jobs for–as someone who is still precariously employed almost eight years after graduating, I feel this all too keenly. We therefore have an obligation to be more explicit in teaching our students how the skills they are learning are relevant to a wide range of life paths, and to celebrate the idea that being a linguist is more than just an industry title.

Lauren Gawne
Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics
La Trobe University
Melbourne, Australia

email: [email protected]
twitter: @superlinguo

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/
All the best,
–the LL Team

Featured Linguist: Shobhana Chelliah

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

Please enjoy this awesome message from this week’s featured linguist, Dr. Shobhana Chelliah!


I am delighted to support the Linguistlist (LL) in their 2019 fund drive. Like many of you, I rely on LL. I’ve posted conference information, gotten input on typological questions, listed jobs, gathered data to argue for new faculty, and to help our students identify nonacademic jobs in linguistics. It’s hard to imagine working without this resource. Please support LL with your donations. I have and I will continue to.

Dr. Shobhana Chelliah

So now a little bit about myself. I was born in Palayamkottai, a town near the city of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, India. When I was seven, my father taught me, my mom, and sister how to eat with knife and fork, packed our belongings and moved us to Washington D.C. He worked at the International Monetary Fund for seven years. In 1975, he decided once again to pack kit and caboodle and move us back to India. Since my Hindi and Sanskrit skills were close to zero, high school for me was at the international boarding school, Woodstock International School. The D.C. experience explains my American accent and the Woodstock experience why I have friends from all over the world.

Now on to my introduction to linguistics: After getting a BA in English literature from St Stephen’s college in Delhi, I signed up for an MA in linguistics, in Delhi University where our Field Methods language was Manipuri (Meiteiron). Thank you M.A. advisor K.V. Subbarao and thank you fellow student and language consultant Promodini Nameirakpam Devi! And thank you UT Austin Ph.D. advisor Anthony Woodbury and collaborator/spouse Willem de Reuse! All four of these great people and many more supported the writing of my first book, A Grammar of Meitei (Mouton 1997). This laid the foundation for my current work on Lamkang Naga, a South Central Tibeto-Burman (Kuki-Chin) language of Manipur. NSF Documenting Endangered Languages grants and the UNT digital library have supported the creation of: https://digital.library.unt.edu/explore/collections/SAALT/. A whole host of questions about metadata, data formats, data organization, and archive usability have crystalized through this experience and my information science, anthropology colleagues, and I are happily tackling those now.

Between 2013-2015, I had the good fortune to serve as the Program Officer for the Documenting Endangered Languages Program at the US National Science Foundation. Thank you Joan Maling, Terry Langendoen, and my Program Officer cohort – What brilliance! What brains! In 2015, with NSF inspiration in my back pocket, I moved back to the University of North Texas, the institution that has mentored, sheltered, and nurtured me since 1996. Here I’ve been involved in creating two types of resources for South Asian Languages: (1) an Interlinear Gloss Translation repository we are calling the Computational Resource for South Asian Languages (CoRSAL) and (2) controlled vocabularies for tagging linguistic data from Tibeto-Burman languages. My partners in these ventures are fellow College of Information knowledge seekers, Computational Linguist Alexis Palmer and Information Scientist Oksana Zavalina.

One really cool happening: UNT is proudly graduating a member of the Lamkang community with an MA in Linguistics and helping her step into her new world as a PhD student in Philosophy with a focus in environmental philosophy. Congratulations, Sumshot Khular! We continue to support students from indigenous populations in India and Pakistan. We have visiting scholars here from Manipur and Pakistan and have admitted a students from Assam, Kashmir, and Pakistan. I am so excited that we can support these students who are committed to their communities and Language Documentation.

So now I am going on the LL website to contribute. Follow me there!

Featured Linguist: Sonja Lanehart

Sonja L. Lanehart, Ph.D.
Brackenridge Endowed Chair in Literature and the Humanities

When I was a teenager, I asked members of my family at a gathering, “Why do Black people use be so much?” Because many people in my family and people important to me struggled with literacy, my mission was to go to college and graduate school and earn a Ph.D. where most of my family did not make it past high school. Without anyone to tell me African American Language (AAL) was a valid language variety, I originally set out to study Speech Pathology as an undergrad at the University of Texas to “fix” African Americans.

During my time as a student in Austin, I was exposed to James Sledd’s “Bi-dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy” (1972) and “Doublespeak: Dialectology in the Service of Big Brother” (1984). Sledd, as a southern White male, spoke about language and identity rights for African Americans (and southerners) in a way they could not (Freed 1995) because, as is still the case, African Americans were seen as too close to the situation. I have always found it troubling/problematic/ironic that, with the inclusion of African Americans and other people of color into the academy, or “the Ivory Tower,” we have often been discouraged from studying our own people because we are accused of being too close to the situation and therefore unable to be objective, whereas Whites have freely studied everyone for centuries and seemingly without reproach or prejudice or subjectivities in the eyes of the research community or the ever-nebulous “they.” As James Sledd noted forty years ago, even “compassionate, liberal educators, knowing the ways of society (i.e., the narrative society has constructed about blackness/Blackness), will change the color of a student’s vowels because they cannot change the color of their students’ skins” (1972, 325). Similarly, James Baldwin, in response to the 1979 case Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School v. Ann Arbor School District—the very Ann Arbor I happened to spend my graduate and Ph.D. years at the University of Michigan—wrote:

“The brutal truth is that the bulk of White people in America never had any interest in educating Black people, except as this could serve White purposes. It is not the Black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be Black, and in which he knows he can never become White. Black people have lost too many Black children that way.” (1979, 19E; emphasis added).

Having meditated on both Sledd’s and Baldwin’s words during my college exposure to linguistics, I remained a lifelong learner of language variation because I come from a community whose language is not valued. Instead of trying to “fix” the language of my people (where there are no problems to begin with), I, a Black woman, was not discouraged from studying my own people because I vowed to use my education to remedy the linguistic prejudices people hold against AAL and its speakers. I know these negative beliefs about AAL persist. I see them in my classes when African American students, usually while using AAL, reject there is such a thing as AAL or that they themselves speak it. I hear this attitude reflected when I interview Black adults, college students, and teenagers about their perceptions of language. I cringe at both Black and non-Black employers who say they will not hire someone who pronounces ask as “aks” (a common pronunciation in AAL) or uses “double negatives” (multiple negation) because it represents faulty thinking (as if language were math) or who pronounces four as “foe” (again, common in AAL) or who just plain does not use “good” English (i.e., “bad” English is a synonym for AAL). I hurt listening to people denigrate Rachel Jeantel for her speech during her testimony as a witness to the murder pf her best friend.

Sista, Speak!
Black Women Kinfolk Talk about Language and Literacy
By Sonja L. Lanehart

I have based my work in Critical Sociolinguistics since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the devastating trial of his murderer, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the massacre of “The Charleston Nine,” and the murder of my distant maternal relative, Sandra Bland, and too many other Black women and men, girls and boys, across the United States. I focused my vocation on asking questions needing answers and investigating gaps in the literature regarding language use and identity in African American communities because I am part of those communities. It is business and it is personal.

As sociolinguists, we have a responsibility to the communities we study in addition to ourselves. As a Black sociolinguist studying Black communities, it is incumbent upon me – and all scholars – to use scholarship both within and outside the academy for the benefit of humanity and society. This is why I do what I do.





Thanks for reading this Featured Story by Sonja Lanehart. While you’re here, please consider donating to the LINGUIST List; only a small portion of our funds come from our host university, and we depend on our donors to keep our services available to linguists all over the world.

Featured Linguist: Patrick Honeybone

The following story was kindly written for us by internationally recognized linguist and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology, Patrick Honeybone!

I think I’ve been very lucky in my career in linguistics. I was lucky that I grew up in a family where it was normal and fun to speak other languages (even though we were landlocked in the East Midlands of England). I was lucky that the schools I attended were big enough and had enough resources to let me take several languages (I’m astonished when I think back that they ran an A-level class in German just for me – I don’t think that would happen in the UK right now). I was lucky that by the time I got to think about where to study, I’d just about figured out that some universities taught linguistic things as part of their languages degrees, and that I should apply to one that did. And I was lucky that, weeks after starting a BA degree in French and German at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, I realised that I really didn’t want to study literature at all, but that Newcastle actually had the perfect degree for me – German and English Language – and they let me swap programmes without any problem.

In the UK, ‘English Language’ means something like ‘the synchronic and diachronic linguistics of English’, and this degree allowed me to study all kinds of things that still fascinate me now: the history and structure of varieties of English and German (and other languages), phonology, other areas of structure like syntax and morphology, sociolinguistics, dialectology, and even the history and philosophy of linguistics. I was lucky that my BA meant I got to spend a year studying in Germany (in Würzburg), where I got properly introduced to the wonders of Germanic-style historical grammars. I was lucky that Newcastle had some exciting lecturers, who showed me all sorts of interesting linguistic ideas, and I was lucky that they introduced an MA programme in Linguistics just as I was trying to figure out what I could do after my BA. I was lucky that I could get funding from the state for an MA, and then for a PhD, and that Newcastle offered the space to think, to combine theoretical and historical phonology, and to figure out that you can make a living out of it all.

I was also lucky that I had some great friends who did degrees at Newcastle at the same time as me, who went with me to my first linguistic conferences, and who made it seem normal to be interested in linguistics. I was lucky to get a job in academia before I finished my PhD. Lucky and stupid: it took another three years to get my PhD after that, but I was lucky to have a kind and helpful set of colleagues at Edge Hill College (now Edge Hill University), who – though we all had a lot to teach – created the space for me to finish my thesis. I was then absurdly lucky to get a job at Edinburgh, where I have found many fantastic colleagues, I have the luxury of teaching just what I want to teach, and where we have managed to set up a group of people interested in historical phonology that is as diverse and interesting as you could hope to find anywhere in the world. My mind is constantly fizzing from the ideas that I get to talk about with colleagues here, and I am also lucky that I’ve supervised some very smart postgraduate students – I’ve learnt a lot from them, too.

Professor Honeybone auctioning books for conference funds at the Manchester Phonology Meeting

Some visionary colleagues set up the Manchester Phonology Meeting just before I was beginning to awake to the marvels of phonology, and that has become a wonderful part of my life. I attended the conference in awe early on during my PhD and I was enthused to see what exciting discussions can take place at a linguistic conference (and how much fun can be had at them). I was excited that these colleagues allowed me to take over the running of the mfm in 2002 (when I was at Edge Hill, which while not in Manchester, was at least in the North-West of England). I have had the privilege to run the mfm (together with a large roster of colleagues from around the world) ever since, and I am constantly grateful that so many interesting people want to come and talk with us about phonology. I seem to run a lot of conferences, which might be a foolish thing to do, but I think that meeting to discuss ideas is crucial, and I like to think that getting the right atmosphere in an event (being open and welcoming, but also offering the chance for the serious discussion of ideas) is quite important. The series of Symposiums on Historical Phonology that we have set up at Edinburgh has also become a great aspect of my life, and I feel lucky that colleagues are interested enough to come to Edinburgh to talk about the many aspects of historical phonology that we all bring together (including: phonological theory, phonetics, sociolinguistics, dialectology, philology, reconstruction and acquisition).

I’ve been lucky that I have been trusted to edit a range of interesting things (like the Handbook of Historical Phonology, English Language and Linguistics, and Papers in Historical Phonology), and I’m lucky that I think (I hope!) that some colleagues have forgiven me if I have not delivered everything that I have promised when I took on too much. Most importantly, I’ve been lucky to have a fantastic family, who support me in all kinds of ways and who work things out so that I can go away for the kinds of trips that academics need to take (and who never cease to remind me that there is a lot to life outside of linguistics).

Professor Honeybone’s poster at the Edinburgh Symposium on Historical Phonology

So: yes – I think I’ve been very lucky. But I also think that you make your own luck. There have to be opportunities available to take, but you also have to figure out what the opportunities are and then how to grab them. And you also have to work out what might work as a new opportunity and then figure out how to implement it – that can be a lot of fun. Finally, I think that we are all very lucky that there is the LINGUIST List. I really don’t think that I could have done everything that I’ve done without it (it’s crucial to publicise conferences, for example, and I make a lot of use of the EasyAbs abstract management system). We are lucky that it’s a fundamentally free and entirely open access way of communicating with all colleagues who are interested in linguistics, anywhere in the world. We should all give what we can in this Fund Drive to keep the LINGUIST List going!

Featured Linguist: Jason Rothman

We are pleased to feature this week’s linguist, Professor Jason Rothman! Read his linguistics journey below!

Like many linguists (certainly like many of us at LL) Rothman was passionate about language long before he knew what “linguistics” really entails

I have always loved language.  I wanted to be a linguist before I really knew what linguistics was. Like many, I originally thought that being a linguist meant a perpetual life of learning language after language.  So dedicated was I to that romantic notion as a teenager that I forged parental consent at the age of 17 to get a tattoo on my inner right ankle. Supposedly it said “linguistics” in Mandarin characters. I have since found out that what is actually there is, well, close enough!  It is a good thing that becoming a linguist has worked out, since tattoos are permanent. In many ways, I was utterly naïve about what a linguist studies. Of course, there are many types of linguists and many complimentary questions related to language worthy of scientific investigation. But, in hindsight, I was not really aware then of even the essential elements that transcend paradigms and, we would agree (I hope) make us linguists.   I suppose the path that brought me in my youth to dedicate myself to linguistics is not terribly different from many: a deep fascination with language coupled with a nerdy desire to understand the dynamic, essential characteristic of this mundane property that defines us as humans, yet is mostly taken for granted.

My real linguistic journey began in earnest in my late teens, when I moved from a suburb of New York City to the remote lands of farm-country New York state.  5 hours from my people-packed home environment, in what appeared to me to be the middle of nowhere, stood a shining and ‘gorges’ beacon of scholarship and architectural beauty (Ithaca is famous for its gorges and, thus, the saying Ithaca is gorges instead of gorgeous).  My first proper linguistics course was, Introduction to Linguistics taught by Professor Wayne Harbert.  He was so passionate and such a good teacher, but it is, nevertheless, fair to say that my romantic notion of what linguistics is was shattered.  It was hard. It was serious. It was a science! I began to think that maybe this tattoo was going to need a cover-up. I am not sure that laser technology to remove tattoos existed in the mid 1990s, so I was even more determined to keep at it.  After the initial shocks of phonetics and phonology—the first part of the course as I recall—my introduction to syntax assured me I was on the right path. I stopped designing the cover-up tattoo somewhere around Halloween of that first semester.  At Cornell, I was able to study linguistics but also Romance languages in all their glory. While I had wonderful professors in cultural studies and literature as well, these courses further hammered home that my love of language would best be served with a linguistic perspective.

In 1999, I moved to Los Angeles to start a MA/PHD at UCLA.  During the MA portion, I studied most closely with the late Professor Claudia Parodi and Prof. Carlos Quicoli. Although we were focused on Romance languages, particularly Spanish and Portuguese, we were taught to use them as tools to understand language in general.  Accurate description of these languages was important, but not enough. Somewhat differently from my undergraduate degree training, sophisticated description was not the end goal. Professors Parodi and Quicoli taught me what I know of formal syntactic theory and in doing so they instilled in me the importance of approaching language in a truly scientific manner.  Today I would describe myself as a formal psycholinguist passionately interested in, if not obsessed with, how the mind represents and processes language(s). But at this time, I had not yet discovered the full joys of language acquisition and processing. The formative years of my MA studies, however, paved the way. I recall thinking: How could these complex systems possibly come to be acquired?  If language was as complex as I was studying, how does the child get (much of) this in her head even before she fully develops domain-general cognition and is able to do other demanding cognitive tasks like math? How do bilingual children do this for multiple languages? How do adults do this and why—at what levels—are they different in acquiring these systems?

Professor Nina Hyams

In 2001, I took my first bona-fide course on general acquisition theory with Professor Nina Hyams. I could not have imagined then how a single course would change the path of my career trajectory and thinking.  I found it. I loved syntactic theory. I was seemingly good at it. However, it was not completely satisfying for me devoid of experimentation probing the development of these complex systems. At the time, experimental syntax as we know it in recent years largely did not exist.  I had been working on null arguments in Spanish and Portuguese at the time. I recall learning in Nina’s class about the well-known Delay in Principle B effect in child language—when children of certain languages until late (age 5 or so) can violate Principle B of the Binding Theory.  At the time, one proposal regarding why this is seen in some languages and not others related to whether the language syntactically licensed null arguments (subjects). It was fascinating.  I was hooked. I wrote my first paper related to how studying Brazilian Portuguese, a language believed to be in a diachronic shift from a null subject to a non-null subject language, children could help adjudicate between theoretical proposals. I found a way to combine my love for language in general and my skills in and penchant for the precision of formal linguistic theory to a domain where theories can be tested directly.  I never looked back.

The next year, also in a course Nina teaches on bilingualism and second language acquisition, I was first introduced to two other amazing role models that would forever change my thinking.  By this time, I had already decided that I would do my PhD work in acquisition but I was still unsure in what populations. Nina is not a specialist in bilingualism. And so, although skype did not exist at the time, she supplemented this course with lectures via video-conferencing and/or live performances. One such lecture was by Professor Bonnie Schwartz who talked to us about her then new model related to child L2 acquisition.  Another was by Professor Maria (Masha) Polinsky on heritage language bilingualism. Both are now dear friends and colleagues. I am not sure they will even recall the questions I asked in those lectures, having given that specific lecture or, if so, that I was even there, but their talks left such an impression on me. By the end of this term, I knew that I would work on bilingualism. That was not necessarily a wise idea or an easy path because UCLA does not have an emphasis on this, at least from a formal linguistic perspective, but I was determined.  And Nina was very inspirational, motivating and supportive. Between her and Carlos Quicoli and very generous people in the field who helped along the way, I was able to put together a decent dissertation project and learn so much.

I was very fortunate to get a job immediately after graduating—this was 2005 when such things were more possible.  My first one was at the University of Iowa where, among many other great friends and colleagues, I was very fortunate to fall under the wing of a proverbial giant who seemed to believe in me more I did myself.  If you know me now, you might not believe it but I was then a (more) quiet person who was not so confident in his abilities. Professor Roumyana Slabakova was the most supportive mentor any new assistant professor could ask for.  She forced me, in ways she knows and for things she did consciously and in ways she does not know because it was simply her presence and her excellence, to believe in myself and that together we could train a proverbial army to ask and answer important questions.  Together we started the journal Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism (this year finishing its 10th year in production), built the first lab I (co)-directed and mentored many wonderful PhD students who are now leading changes in our field.  In 2010, I moved to the University of Florida where I was able to mentor another cohort of truly exceptional students and grow in my research base.  It was there that my bug for psycholinguistic methods first took hold, not the least due to my wonderful colleagues working with online measures. It was also there that my concern for incorporating input quality in formal linguistic theories related to the development and ultimate attainment of bilingualism, especially heritage language bilingualism, was solidified.

Professor Roumyana Slabakova, Rothman’s colleague and mentor at University of Iowa

In 2013, I took a full professorship in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, in the UK.  At the time, the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism (CeLM) was being formed and I was one of the new hires for the center. Reading has been very formative, not the least due to being in a Psychology department.  I made a conscious effort to learn about, expand into and invest in online processing methodologies and the connections between language and cognition (especially in bilingualism) more generally. I was able to found the University of Reading Psycho-and Neurolinguistics lab, co-directing it with Dr. Ian Cunnings. Using behavioral experimentation, eye-tracking, EEG/ERP and even (f)MRI we have been able to inject formal linguistic insights into studying how the mind and brain adapt to bilingualism as well as combine formal linguistic theory questions into modern psycholinguistics where this has been rarely done for heritage language bilingualism and adult additive multilingualism.

As I write this, I am in the process of moving full time to UiT The Arctic University of Norway, where since 2014 I have been in a 20% Adjunct Professor position in the Language Acquisition, Variation and Attrition (LAVA) research group and the NTNU/UiT joint Acquisition, Variation and Attrition (AcqVA) group.  At UiT, we will inaugurate the Pyscholinguistics of Language Representation (PoLaR) lab which will bring EEG/ERP to language research above the Arctic Circle. In September, I will begin a 4-year research project funded by the Tromsø Forskiningsstiftelse (TFS) entitled Heritage Language Proficiency in their Native Grammar (HeLPiNG).  This roughly 3-million-Euro grant will employ several post-doctoral scholars as well as fractional professorships through 2023. While I will miss my Reading family terribly, I am very excited to join full-time what is one of the best epicenters of linguistics anywhere in the world, not only the incredible cluster of linguists in LAVA and AcqVA but across several other world-leading research groups in various domains of linguistics housed at UiT, Center of Advanced Studies in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL) and Cognitive Linguistics: Empirical Approaches Russian (CLEAR) .

As is likely true of most, many accidents, a lot of luck, passion and endurance has brought me to where I am today.  I have been fortunate to work with the most talented group of young scholars over the past 14 years. My students and postdocs have inspired and challenged me more than anyone else and remind me that while I am a professor, I am also a student at the same time.  This year marks 20 years since I began graduate school and while there have been many ups and downs, I feel privileged to have done so much more than I ever thought possible when I first moved to Los Angeles from Ithaca. So many people have supported me along the way, whatever I have accomplished is a testament to all that you have contributed.  You know who you are, so thank you. A quarter century has passed since I got that linguistics tattoo. While it’s a little faded on the surface its longevity and symbolism are real, inspiring and enduring.

Featured Linguist: Ghil‘ad Zuckermann

Ghil‘ad Zuckermann:

I was born in Tel Aviv and grew up Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel. My father was an Italian Jew who survived the Second World War in Italy and then arrived in Israel as a teenager in 1945. My own first memory is being rushed to the shelter during the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). As a child growing up in Eilat I experienced ‘Othering’ (defining oneself vis-à-vis the other) every day, looking at the spectacular, albeit inaccessible, unreachable, mountains of Aqaba, Jordan.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann before the “Prof. Dr.” titles!

In 1987, I hosted Yitzhak Rabin (then Israel’s Defence Minister) in Eilat. He arrived there on the Day of Youth in Power, when I served as elected mayor.

During that year, in 1987 I left Eilat for the international boarding school United World College of the Adriatic (Collegio del Mondo Unito dell’Adriatico) in Duino, Trieste, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy. It was my first time overseas and since then I never stopped travelling all over the globe; the college has changed my life.

I returned to Israel in 1989 and served in the Israeli army, followed by studies at Tel Aviv University’s Inter-Disciplinary Programme for Outstanding Students.

A wheelbarrow-full of books at Oxford!

Dr. Zuckermann in a Bookshop in China, travelling the world as always

My dream to look at Eilat from the OTHER side of the bay was fulfilled in 1995 – after Jordan (Hussein) and Israel (Rabin) signed the peace accord. Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, and I left Israel for a doctorate at the University of Oxford in 1996.

From Oxford I moved to Cambridge but in 2001 I fell in love at first sight with Australia, when I was invited to deliver a public lecture on what I call the Israeli language (the result of the Hebrew revival) at the University of Sydney. At the time, I was a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, while on sabbatical from the University of Cambridge. I returned to Singapore and Cambridge, but decided to look for an academic position in Australia. When I arrived in Melbourne in 2004, I asked myself how I might contribute to Australian society that was hosting me so graciously.


I identified two pressing in situ issues:

  1. the exasperating bureaucracy (there are democracies, and then there are aristocracies; some people might define our Israel as an adhocracy; modern Australia was founded as a bureaucracy, and today is a professionalized one); and
  2. the suffering of the Aboriginal people.

I said to myself: How could an Israeli professor assist in reducing Australian bureaucracy?!? I decided to invest my efforts in the Aboriginal issue.

Had I been a dentist, I would have tried pro bono to improve dental health among the Aboriginal people. I once offered a toothpick to an Aboriginal friend of mine after I shouted her a tender angus steak, to which she replied: “What is this?” “It is a toothpick”, I said. “I don’t have any teeth”, she retorted. (I had not noticed that she had chewed the steak with her gums.)

Had I been a psychologist, I would have tried to assist some Aboriginal people break their addiction to alcohol or smoking. But I am a linguist specializing in the revival of Hebrew and the emergence of the Israeli language, a hybrid language based on Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages spoken by revivalists.

So, I found a fascinating and multifaceted niche, in a totally virgin soil: applying lessons from the Hebrew revival to the reclamation and empowerment of Aboriginal languages and cultures. I decided to act in three fronts: macro, micro and “MOOCro”:

In the macro: since 2004: establishing “revivalistics”, a global, trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation (no native speakers, for example Hebrew, and the Barngarla Aboriginal language of South Australia), revitalization (severely endangered, for example Shanghainese, and Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia) and reinvigoration (endangered, for example Welsh, and Te Reo Māori in Aotearoa, i.e. New Zealand).

In the micro: since 2011: reclaiming the Barngarla Aboriginal language of Eyre Peninsula (e.g. Galinyala = Port Lincoln; Goordnada = Port Augusta; Waiala = Whyalla; all in South Australia). This is not a laboratorial enterprise. In 2011 I asked the Barngarla community if they were interested and they told me that they had been waiting for me for 50 years. How do I – a Jewish Israeli, son of a Holocaust survivor – help Aboriginal people undo what I call “linguicide” (language killing) done by English colonizers and reclaim the Barngarla language? By means of a dictionary written in 1844 by a Lutheran Christian German, Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann! This is, then, a patently cosmopolitan enterprise.

In the MOOCro, so to speak: since 2015: creating and convening a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) entitled Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages. So far I have had 12,000 learners from 190 countries (including Syria and Afghanistan).

I have detected three types of benefits of language revival:

Urak Lawoi is a language in Thailand undergoing revitalization efforts. Above, Prof. Dr. Zuckermann in Thailand during his involvement in the project–

The first benefit is ethical: what is right: Aboriginal languages are worthy of reviving, out of a desire for historic social justice. They deserve to be reclaimed in order to right the wrong of the past. These languages were wiped out in a process of linguicide. I personally know dozens of Aboriginal people who were “stolen” from their parents when they were kids. I believe in what I call “Native Tongue Title”, which would be an extension of “Native Title” (compensation for the loss of land). I propose that the Australian government grant financial compensation for the loss of languages – to cover efforts to resuscitate a lost language or empower an endangered one. In my view, language is more important than land. Loss of language leads not only to loss of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and heritage, but also to the loss of the “soul”, metaphorically speaking.

South African Language Revitalization

The second benefit for Aboriginal language revival is aesthetic: what is beautiful: Diversity is beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Just as it is fun to embrace koalas (in the hope that they have had their nails cut short) or to photograph baby rhinos and elephants, so, too, it is fun to listen to a plethora of languages and to learn odd and unique words. For example, I love the word mamihlapinatapai, in the Yaghan language, spoken in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The word is very precise and to the point in its meaning. Any attempt to translate it cannot be performed in fewer words than the following: “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves”. Despite the fact that any word in a language is translatable, there is a difference, at least aesthetically, between saying mamihlapinatapai and saying “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”.

Language Revival efforts are underway in Namibia

The third benefit for Aboriginal language revival is utilitarian: what is economically viable: Language reclamation empowers individuals who have lost their sense of pride and at times even the reason to live. This wellbeing empowerment can save the Australian government millions of dollars that would otherwise need to be invested in mental health and incarceration. Not to mention the various cognitive and health benefits of bilingualism. For example, native bilinguals are cleverer than themselves as monolinguals; native bilingualism delays dementia by more than 4 years.


Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann’s forthcoming book, Revivalistics, Cross-Fertilization and Wellbeing: Awakening Hebrew and Other Sleeping Beauty Languages, is in print with Oxford University Press.

Professor Zuckermann’s brief bio:

Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann (D.Phil. Oxford; Ph.D. Cambridge, titular; M.A. Tel Aviv, summa cum laude) is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is a chief investigator in a large research project assessing language revival and mental health, funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

He is the author of the seminal bestseller Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language; Am Oved, 2008), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), three chapters of the Israeli Tingo (Keren, 2011), Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property (2015), the first online Dictionary of the Barngarla Aboriginal Language (2017), and Barngarla Alphabet Book (2019). He is the editor of Burning Issues in Afro-Asiatic Linguistics (2012), Jewish Language Contact (2014), a special issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, and the co-editor of Endangered Words, Signs of Revival (2014).

He is the founder of Revivalistics, a new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry surrounding language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration. In 2011 he launched, with the Barngarla Aboriginal communities of Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, the reclamation of the Barngarla language.

Professor Zuckermann is elected member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL). He is President of the Australian Association for Jewish Studies (AAJS) and was President of AustraLex in 2013-2015, Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Fellow in 2007–2011, and Gulbenkian Research Fellow at Churchill College Cambridge in 2000-2004.

Prof. Dr. Zuckermann with Stephen Fry in Israel

He has been Consultant and Expert Witness in (corpus) lexicography and (forensic) linguistics, in court cases all over the globe, e.g. the Philippines, Singapore, USA and Australia.

He has been Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shanghai International Studies University and taught at the University of Cambridge, University of Queensland, National University of Singapore, Middlebury College (Vermont, USA), Shanghai Jiao Tong University, East China Normal University, Shanghai International Studies University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, University of Haifa, and Miami University (Florida).

He has been Research Fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science; Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Institute for Advanced Study, La Trobe University; Mahidol University (Bangkok); Tel Aviv University; Institute of Linguistics, Shanghai International Studies University; and Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo. He has been Denise Skinner Scholar at St Hugh’s College Oxford, Scatcherd European Scholar at the University of Oxford, and scholar at the United World College of the Adriatic (Italy).

His MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages, has attracted 12,000 learners from 190 countries (speakers of hundreds of distinct languages): https://www.edx.org/course/language-revival-securing-future-adelaidex-lang101x

Featured Linguist: Wannie Carstens


I grew up in Namibia (in the 1950’s and 1960’s) where I was exposed to a real multilingual world: German (as Namibia is a former German protectorate, end of 19th and beginning of 20th century), Afrikaans (due to the historical connection to South Africa where Afrikaans at that stage was the primary language), English, and many indigenous languages: Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Nama, Damara, Kavango, San, etc. My father worked for the government and he travelled a lot. During school holidays I accompanied him and experienced these languages and their speakers in their actual settings. It opened a multicultural and multilingual world to me, a world in which I felt comfortable, the world of languages.

But I had a very good Afrikaans teacher in my high school in Windhoek, and this eventually motivated me to take Afrikaans (in combination with Dutch) and German as my majors for my BA degree at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. During my first year (1971) I took an extra course in General Linguistics (Algemene Taalwetenskap), taught by Prof Rudolph P Botha, one of South Africa’s best linguists ever. This where I really felt at home – hearing more about syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc. But due to my interest in Afrikaans (and the possibility of becoming a teacher in Afrikaans) I continued with my study in Afrikaans and eventually obtained a MA degree in Afrikaans linguistics.

I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a temporary lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Stellenbosch (SU), and it dawned upon me that I probably would not become a school teacher any more. (The fact the my girl friend of that time – now my wife of more than 40 years – was still studying at SU naturally had no effect on my decision to accept the position …) This also motivated me to enrol for a DLitt degree at SU under the guidance of Prof Fritz Ponelis, the foremost scholar in Afrikaans syntax. In my thesis I focussed on a combined semantic-syntactic study of Afrikaans definite pronouns and researched the influence the context of various written texts had on the use of these pronouns in Afrikaans.

At this time I already was a lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Cape Town, where I eventually spend 11 and a half years before moving to the former Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (since 2004 the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University) where I retired (after a full career of 41 years) at the end of 2017 as professor in Afrikaans linguistics.

At UCT I wrote my first book, a book on normative linguistics for Afrikaans (Norme vir Afrikaans (“Norms for Afrikaans”)), as I had to develop material for my second and third language speakers of Afrikaans for one of my courses. When a publisher came around asking for manuscripts I told them about the work I was doing and I was invited to submit the manuscript. To my astonishment this book (published in 1989) became a best-seller in Afrikaans linguistics and it has been used since then as a handbook in many courses in South Africa. The 6th revised edition of this book was published in January 2018. It still amazes me that this book had this success!

Due to my interest in text linguistics, of which I took note while busy with my DLitt, and after meeting Prof Nils Erik Enkvist from Turku in Finland, and the great Robert de Beaugrande himself, who at that stage was teaching at the University of Botswana, in Gaborone, Botswana, I in due time completed the first book on text linguistics in Afrikaans in 1997 (Afrikaanse Tekslinguistiek (“Afrikaans Text Linguistics”)). This enabled me to combine my interest in syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and text linguistics into one book. This eventually led to my next book on text editing (Afrikaanse Teksredaksie (“Afrikaans text editing”)– together with Prof Kris van de Poel of the University of Antwerp in Belgium) where I was able to use the knowledge gained from normative grammar and text linguistics to develop a model – based upon Prof Jan Renkema of the University of Tilburg’s well-known CCC model – for the training of a new generation of copy/text editors in Afrikaans. Again a first for Afrikaans. Since then this book has been adapted for use in English (Text Editing, 2012), Sesotho (2016) and the IsiZulu version should be finalized this year and the IsiXhosa version next year. Versions in German and Dutch are also underway. (We are looking for candidates to adapt this book also for their own languages – scholars in Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, etc. are more than welcome to contact me in this regard.) I am glad my work had this effect! This was an effort on my side to transfer my skills and knowledge to other languages.

My last project was just concluded when I submitted the final manuscript for Part 2 of a book on the history of Afrikaans (together with Prof Edith Raidt). This book, titled Die storie van Afrikaans: uit Europa en van Afrika. Biografie van ‘n taal (“The story of Afrikaans: Out of Europe and from Africa. Biography of a language”) is the result of the last five years of my career. I had the privilege to be part of the last 48 years of the history of Afrikaans (and the way it developed) and I recorded this for the next generation. There is a good possibility that the last two books (Part 1 and 2 of STORIE) will be translated into English in the near future.

My whole career was in and about Afrikaans. It was a decision I made early on in my career. Rather than trying to be a scholar in a language I am not fluent in (English) my choice was to make a contribution to my home language, Afrikaans – despite what so many people said about this language and its complex history. Looking back I think I made a small contribution in developing Afrikaans linguistics as a discipline in a few fields: normative grammar, text linguistics, text editing, language politics, the history of Afrikaans. At least I do hope it is experienced as such by colleagues in South Africa!


  1. Do not be afraid to follow your passion. (It worked for me.)
  2. Read, read and read as wide as possible at the beginning of your career. It helps you to make an informed choice regarding the field you want to specialize in, whatever it may be.
  3. Look for the gaps in your selected field and then make yourself the expert regarding that specific gap.
  4. Never be afraid to tackle something new. Be bold. (All the famous linguists followed this route.) You might become the real expert in that field. (And eventually a famous linguist …)
  5. Do not be afraid to follow your gut. (It will not always work out but how will you know if you do not experiment with something?)
  6. It makes no sense to do exactly what someone else already did. It is just repetition and not something new. When you look back over your career, can you say: “I think I really made a difference”? This is the real test.
  7. Remember that every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation(s). This means that you can and may (!) use the work of a previous generation(s) as point of departure for your own work. Therefore do not be afraid to criticise the work of the previous generation. (It happened that some of my former students criticized some of my earlier work and it meant a lot to me: as (a) it meant they found it worthwhile enough to criticize and (b) I thoroughly enjoyed it as it helped to sharpen the knowledge on the specific topic. (c) It even ‘gave me a kick’ to know that my students were not afraid to be critical of their former teacher.)
  8. Make a serious effort to establish a good and wide network (friends, contacts) in your discipline and specific field. No academic / linguist can survive without a network. (Hi! to Bob at UCLA, Gary at UNLV in Las Vegas, Paul at UNC Chapel Hill, Jacques at Univ Ghent, Kris at Univ of Antwerp, Marijke and Gijsbert at Leiden, Rina in Vienna, Sanna in Turku, Eric in Aruba, etc.)
  9. If you get an opportunity to spend time in other countries (as post doc, visiting scholar) make use of this opportunity as it will broaden your horizon as academic. Networks make this possible and feasible.
  10. Share information (new books, an article they/he/she might be interested in, information on a possible relevant conference or event, etc.) with your network. Because of this someone in your network might be willing to read your first draft of papers and even give critical feedback. This is priceless!
  11. Attend conferences nationally and internationally. Otherwise no one will know about your work. You do not always have to read a paper, as attendance of these conferences is part of experiencing the world of linguistics.
  12. Publish in good international journals as much as possible, but also do not be afraid to publish in local journals as the local linguistics’ industry of your country must also be maintained.
  13. Remember that you have a responsibility to develop the field and discipline in your own country and in your own language.
  14. Do not be afraid to publish in your own language. English is NOT the only language of science. But also publish in English if it is possible for you as it probably will be read wider.
  15. You really do not have to be the most important international scholar. It is a bonus if it is the case. But it is important to be a recognized scholar in your own context because this is where you work and stay and function.
  16. If your work is regarded as good/exceptional translate it in English if you are a scholar in another language.
  17. Take a business card (linked to your institution) to conferences and hand it out if there is an opportunity. And when you get back home keep the cards you got and make contact with persons in your field. (It takes time and effort, but trust me: it really is worthwhile!)
  18. Attend at least one LSA. Two will be even better. This is very important! This will make a difference to the way you approach what you do and the way you think about language and linguistics. (And take a picture of yourself with some of the ‘big names’ and put it against your wall to look at when you feel discouraged and tired.)
  19. Make provision in your annual research budget for a financial contribution to the LinguistList (LL). Or make certain that your institution makes an annual (worthwhile!) contribution to the List. Without it you will be in ‘linguistic darkness’. We talk about pre- and current LL. You are lucky that you are in the current LL period. Enjoy the benefits of this.


I think I am actually one of the first linguists in South Africa who started to make use of the List. Even in the early days of email in South Africa (1992!) I was a member of earlier versions of the list. And to be honest – I am proud that I realised the enormous potential of the List. It opened a world wide network of linguists (wwnl) to me. I could read their informal thoughts about topics in linguistics, and I learned about new publications. It also opened linguistics as an international discipline to me, and it helped me immensely in my own career in various ways:

  1. It helped me to sharpen my own thinking about linguistics as a discipline, and also specific issues in linguistics.
  2. It informed me about conferences of which I would not have known otherwise. It made it possible for me to attend conferences all over the world (such as in the USA, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Russia).
  3. It informed me about publications I would not have seen otherwise. (Due to the cultural and academic boycott in the 1970’s and 1980’s we in South Africa could not always get the books we wanted but at least we could take note of it and get copies through other means.) I ordered it for our university library and in this way it helped to build a trusted and respected library for the field.
  4. This library enabled me to read more then would have otherwise been the case.
  5. It enabled me to share information from the List (about conferences, workshops, books, etc.) with colleagues all over the country, and even in other parts of the world. In this way my own network grew. And then colleagues again started to share their ideas, publications, etc. with me. Therefore beneficial to both parties.
  6. For many years I was a manager and had to establish a new generations of linguists in South Africa, not only in Afrikaans, but in general – the information I got from the List helped me to shape their careers (send them to conferences, order books for them, help them to select topics for further study, etc.).


Lastly. When I became a manager (some of us get to be managers…) and the List asked for funding to support the various services of the LL, I was in a position to start a funding campaign in my own institution (money from the institution itself but also from individual researchers) and it enabled us as group to make a contribution. For many years the NWU was the Africa and South African champion regarding our contributions! The exchange rate of the SA rand unfortunately had an effect on the actual amount in US dollar bit at least we tried. I also tried to get other South African institutions to buy in regarding fun ding support but I was not too successful in this regard. A pity.

Now that I have retired there is no guarantee that the linguists at my institution will continue to contribute, but I did my best to convince the new managers to continue with the project. I also requested the Linguistic Society of Southern Africa (LSSA) to become more involved in the funding campaign. Let us hold thumbs that there will be success in both cases.

I find it really strange that the LL have to actually plead for support! There are so many benefits for linguists that even an annual contribution equivalent to $20 from ALL linguists around the world should just be a formality. There are 10 000 people regularly using the List and I think $200 000 will enable the staff to even add more services. Therefore: help to keep the LL going at all costs! As long as I as retired linguist have access to research funding I certainly will make a contribution, every year, even if it is a small amount. The LL should maybe consider asking a fee for enrolment – I know it will take a lot of effort but it might just be the solution to the problems.

I thank the staff maintaining the List for enabling me to be part of an international network and this over a long time. I do wish you the best and I will continue consulting the List as long as I am still active as linguist. I am and will remain a true supporter of the List!


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Featured Linguist: Dafydd Gibbon

Dafydd Gibbon

Looking back over many decades of passion for linguistics and phonetics, it turns out that there are not as many steps as one might think from a first degree in literature and philology, emphasising structural, hermeneutic and biographical methods, and thorough acquaintance with the history of the Germanic languages from Indo-European to the 20th century, to research on computational language documentation and computational phonetics, particularly prosody, on the other.

For example, the rhymes and metrical patterns of lyrical poetry have been a source of metaphors for terminology in phonology (for example ‘metre’, ‘metrical phonology’, ‘iambic’ and ‘trochaic’ stress patterns, ‘rhyme’, ‘anacrusis’) for a long time. And not only do the deep-to-surface rules of generative and post-generative phonologies tend to mirror many of the sound change rules of philology, the ‘Junggrammatiker’ of the late 19th and early 20th century were no slouches when it came to formal descriptive precision. Ferdinand de Saussure, too, our semiotically oriented structural linguistic grandfather figure, was most well-known in his time for his work on Indo-European vowels and laryngeals. Leonard Bloomfield worked in remarkable transdisciplinary environments: from philological studies in Göttingen to cooperation with expat Vienna logician Rudolf Carnap in Chicago, whose background in the Vienna circle of logicians and linguists links up with the Prague school of linguistics, particularly Trubetzkoy’s logical theory of binary oppositions, and thus, via Roman Jakobson, linguist and literary scholar, with late 20th century Bostonian linguistics. Optimality Theory, too, is a practical application of set-constraining ‘generate and test’ pattern matching search algorithms in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence.

The symbiosis of hermeneutic literary studies, logic and speech analysis which these scholars practised has inspired me in different ways during my linguistic career, leading to a synthesis of Hallidayan and Chomskyan views of language as a finite stack of ranks from discourse to the speech sound, together with semantic-pragmatic and prosodic-phonetic interpretations at each rank (Rank-Interpretation Theory).

The interdisciplinary environment at Bielefeld University and lengthy involvement in international projects (especially SAM, EAGLES, VerbMobil, DoBeS, E-MELD), as well as appointments in several African countries, in India and in China, has created many opportunities to meet and work on these topics with stimulating colleagues of many persuasions in many corners of the world (yes, the world is a polyhedron in my computational cosmology) and to indulge my interests in literature (check my #haiku tweets and choupub ebooks) and music (check tumblr) with colleagues and students, as well as notching up a current total of 114 co-authors, Erdös #4 and (particularly proud of these) awards for linguistic and phonetic cooperations with Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Naturally I’m looking forward to many more such transdisciplinary and transcultural cooperations with fruitful interchanges of data, description, documentation and computation, and – most of all! – to the ever rewarding interactions with speakers of fascinating languages, the real sources of our dedication to language and speech.


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Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Featured Linguist: David Stifter

Why am I a linguist ‒ A tale of three spells

1. Under the spell of Celtic

I remember when I first encountered the word ‘Celtic‘. I was around eight years old and had to stay home from school because I was suffering from a fluish infection. To stave off my boredom, my father brought home the latest volume of Asterix, ‘Asterix in Belgium’, my first encounter with that character. On one of the first pages, Asterix introduces himself to the Belgians by saying (of course in German translation) ‘We are from the Celtic part of Gaul’. I wondered what ‘keltisch’ (Celtic) meant and came up with one of my first etymologies. I thought this word must be somehow derived from ‘kalt’ (cold). One learns through one’s mistakes.

A few years later, in grammar school, I remember the excitement that I felt when I leaved through the final pages of our school edition of Caesar’s Gaulish War. The index gave explanations and etymologies for all personal names mentioned in the text, including the Gaulish ones. By that time, not least because of Asterix, I had a general idea what Celtic and Gaulish meant, but the language itself, like the other Celtic languages of which at the time I knew nothing more than the names, had already put a spell on me that had nothing to do with any practical considerations. This is how conditioning works. A generation later, I find myself in Ireland, holding the position of professor of one of those Celtic languages and contributing to the edition of newly discovered Gaulish inscriptions, on the forefront of those who try to shed some light on this still so poorly understood language.

How I got into Old Irish is an anecdote worth telling, an anecdote that illustrates the twists and turns of life. Although I had had these romantic ideas about Celtic for many years, I used to be least attracted by Irish (largely for aesthetic reasons: too many h’s in the words). One October evening 1994, while walking home from an evening lecture, I told the lecturer that I was dreaming of going to Wales to study Welsh. Next morning, the Head of Department, Prof. Jochem Schindler – who the lecturer must have contacted immediately after our chat – called me into his office and greeted me with the words: ‘You are going to Maynooth to do Old Irish‘. I refrained from objecting that so far I had not felt the least appeal by Old Irish. Only a few weeks later Prof. Schindler, having just turned 50, suffered a stroke and died a few days later, and I was left with his linguistic legacy. So I went to Maynooth, facilitated by a Scholarship of the Republic of Ireland, and sucked in Old Irish there. After that year abroad, I returned to Vienna where I got sucked into a career as a historical linguist, more by a combination of luck and inadvertence than by any grand design. After fifteen years I received a call back to Maynooth. In this way, very much like St Patrick who heeded the call of Vox Hiberionacum ‘the voice of the Irish‘, I am here again now, spreading Old Irish to the world. And after all, compared to Modern Irish, there aren’t that many h’s in Old Irish words.

2. Under the spell of solving riddles

Without curiosity, there is no science. Without the desire for discovery, there is no progress. Without the urge to solve riddles, we will only ever remain at the stage of stupefied mystery, but we will not be able to move on to appreciative admiration. This is what motivates me to look behind words, where they come from, what their history is, and to look into them, to see what their inner working is. It may be the case that knowing the name of something tells us nothing about that thing, but knowing a name and its etymological analysis surely reveals us something about the people who created the name, what they thought, how they saw their world. Many riddles in that!

My discipline of historical linguistics is blessed in that we can operate on the hypothesis that every riddle has a solution, but it is cursed all the same since the key to that solution is often irretrievably lost in time. We can try to piece together the fragmentary evidence that has come down to us, but we may not have access to enough information to create the full picture. However, we can still make the effort, and perhaps, on the way, we are fortunate to discover an alternative way of looking at a problem. This is why I love deciphering inscriptions in scripts that are no longer used, or why I spend my time on extracting fragmentary messages from almost illegible manuscripts. For me, the linguistic study of a language is inseparable from a rooting in the philology of that tradition. When I approach an unknown text, it has to be taken from all sides: the palaeography, the spelling, the requirements of the genre, the phonology, the lexicon, the syntax, the historical context. Missing a tiny stroke of ink over one letter can have effects on the understanding of the verb, the clause, the text, with further reverberations on syntactic theory, the study of history etc. Without understanding its anchorage in real life, we will only make superficial statements about the language.

A newly found word, its meaning, its prehistory, and its relationship with other words fill me with great excitement. These small riddles can be found everywhere in our lives, they can enrich us every day. The fact that I grew up in a part of Austria where four different languages (not counting dialects) are spoken, made me aware of the richness and value of linguistic diversity. I learnt soon that most of my German-speaking peers carried their ignorance and rejection of the minority languages like a depraved badge of honour, not as a mark of disgrace, but for me it was a stimulus to learn more and to keep my mind open.

I was fortunate to belong to the ‒ perhaps ‒ last generation of university students in my country that was not squeezed into the straightjacket of economised education, that is to say, school-like curricula and tight time-frames. I had the privilege of being able to learn just for learning’s sake, almost whatever I wanted and for as long as I wanted. Since I did not need any credits for my degree at home, I never actually sat a single exam in Old Irish when I studied in Maynooth. The closest I got to being examined about Early Irish were two exams in Middle Irish, which I did a few years later in Vienna. I spent nine years on my Master’s degree, and another five on the PhD. Add this to my twelve years in school, and I spent 26 years in education and training. How does this compare to the 20 years of learning that Julius Caesar reported for the druids? It is fitting that as a professor in Ireland I now bear the title of Ollamh, the highest grade awarded to poets in medieval Irish society. And knowing its history, I bear it proudly.

3. Under the spell of time

The third spell that I am under is that of time: What is time, what is its cause, and is it at all? How does it shape human experience, what does it mean for a person to lose time? These issues are intricately woven into the structure of languages and language experience – language being one of the most effective means to counteract time.

Where these three spells overlap, that is that delightful place where I find myself when I succeed in recreating a small piece of lost time, when I am able to make speak to us again human beings who lived centuries or millennia ago, and when I make them share some of their thoughts with us, make them share how they rationalised their lives in environments that are very different from our daily modern experience, and yet they are of the same human nature. There is no standing still. It is one of the tasks of a scientist to bring together the past with the present in order to transform it into the future. What my job, or rather my vocation, is about is, in the final analysis, to bring together the old – the ancient texts, the languages no longer spoken – with the new ‒ the modern technology of computational and quantitative methods, databases, the internet, in order convey the analogue media of the objectivised past into the digital media of the virtual present.


David Stifter is Professor of Old Irish at the Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, Ireland. His research project Chronologicon Hibernicum has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 647351). The project aims at developing methods for the dating of Early Irish language developments.



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